Although I cannot pretend that I have always gotten along with my late father, I certainly learned some powerful life lessons from him. My dad, Abe Roth (ZL) was a strong presence in the community, with an impeccable work ethic that remains unmatched to this day. Abe Roth, the master plumber, and owner of A Roth Plumbing and Heating was a larger-than-life personality and a brand unto himself. People still tell me stories about their broken hot water heaters, busted pipes, and countless bathroom renovations that he repaired, rearranged, and resurrected for them, all while balancing a cigar and a wrench. All of their touching stories end with the same sentiment, “Your dad was the greatest and most honest plumber. We miss him.” In that respect I shall remain known as “The Plumber’s Daughter,” an exceptionally good title for my next book.
As his only child, I learned extensively about craftsmanship and creativity, because my father was meticulous about connecting shape, form, and color. This probably jump-started me into the creative process of fashion and design. I have a timely and unexpected story to share that is as relevant today as it was the day it happened.
My grandparents, Mechel and Tova Roth, left Poland and immigrated to the United States the late 1920s. Arriving as a newly married couple with the hope of thriving in the “Goldene Medina,” (golden land). As many families arrived with children to feed and bills to pay, the economy in the US crashed to nothing. “The Great Depression” of the 1930s brought desperation and grave hardships to most of its citizens. Endless bread lines were how they received food from government assistance. It was the longest, deepest, and most widespread depression of the 20th century.
My Zaidy (grandfather) and his family traveled wherever there was work for himself as a carpenter. Of all the unlikely places, they moved to Mobile, AL, in the “Deep South.” My father was about 10 years old then and my uncle Chaim was 8. They had 5 or 6 other siblings that included my aunts Cynthia and Bella Rabinowitz.
The stories my father told me of his adventures there were of their makeshift yeshiva (Hebrew school) where he taught his younger siblings Torah (Bible) in an abandoned treehouse. He delivered these stories with a thick southern accent to create the correct tone, and I would laugh each time I heard them. As a child I imagined how wonderful it must have been to have such freedom without teachers or real classrooms.
One day, when I was about 10 years old, I participated in a terrible childish stunt with my friends from my block in Queens, orchestrated by the neighborhood bully against an innocent black lady. As she elegantly strolled down our block on 76th Road, we started making fun of her like little monsters. She ran away from us as she approached the Main Street.
My father witnessed this encounter from the screen door and stormed out to grab me by my dress and drag me home with an expression of anger that I will never forget. He forced me to sit on the couch and proceeded to teach me a lesson that changed my life. He screamed, “Toba Leah, let me tell you the rest of the story about living in Mobile, AL.
There were signs everywhere that said, “No Negros, No Jews and No Dogs!” He told me about the lynchings and beatings he witnessed. The White cultural hatred of Blacks and Jews caused them to be treated no better than common animals. Jews could not even use the same bathroom as Whites. The multiple times that he and his brothers were beaten up because they were Jewish were horrific. Then came the punch line that I will never forget, “So Toba Leah, do you think you are any better than that lady that you frightened today? DO NOT forget who you are!” That day I experienced so much scorn and punishment from my father, and I felt his grave disappointment in me. He knew that I would never view Blacks or any minority in the same light again.
It is not every day that a Jewish orthodox girl receives a lesson like this about racism and antisemitism in the USA. In our communities, the lesson is more commonly about antisemitism as it relates to the Holocaust.
At a time of great unrest in our country between races, genders, politics, and power, I choose my slogan, “Fathers Matter.” It is what they teach you to respect that matters. It is what they teach you to love that matters. It is what they teach you to do that matters.
I am proud to say that my father taught me very well. I have shared my life’s joyful and sorrowful events with brilliant and faithful black men and women as well as with those of other faiths, races, and political views. I have developed businesses, shared Shabbos (Sabbath dinners), cried, laughed, danced, cooked, created, and traveled with the best crew of people I could have ever known because of my father’s wisdom.
Pirkai Avot says, “Who is smart? One that learns from others.”
I, the plumber’s daughter, have learned a valuable lesson from my Dad about what really matters and how to treat others.